Hercules looked up, nervously eyeing the condensation collecting on the ceiling above the fire pit. Had he finally destroyed Hera's Enforcer? When nothing more happened, he leapt down and rushed to Nemesis' side. He knelt beside her and reached out to gently gather her up. The moment he touched her she stirred, moaning softly. She moaned again as he rose with her cradled in his arms.
Another moan, then her eyelids fluttered open. "Hercules."
"Easy, don't try to move yet. Where does it hurt?"
"Hurt? Is that what this is, pain?" She moaned again. "I don't like it. Make it stop."
The demigod smiled sadly at the former goddess. "Sorry, it doesn't work that way. If you tell me where it hurts, I might be able to make you feel a little better though."
"My head and my b - back, I guess."
"Okay. You just relax while I get us back to the barn."
As he walked, Hercules watched for signs of serious injury and was relieved to find none. A few bruises and a bump on the back of her head were all he found. She had been knocked unconscious so he'd need to keep an eye on her for a while. He didn't think that'd be any hardship though.
Hercules decided Nemesis should take it easy for a bit. The first thing he would do is put her to bed and see that she got some rest.
Iolaus held his pose until he was sure that Hercules was really gone. Once alone, he sank back on the make shift bed. Everything hurt. He'd been through plenty of fights and gotten pretty thoroughly pummeled on more than one occasion but he'd never been in this much pain before. Now that he'd stopped fighting for control, the feeling overwhelmed him.
He tried to relax, to let the pain flow out with his breath. It was a trick that usually worked pretty well but not this time. Iolaus felt the tears start and tried to regain control of himself. He couldn't. Once he'd let his control slip, he'd ceded every shred of it. He couldn't even manage to pass out. He was too worried about Hercules.
Hercules - that helped.
Iolaus' concern for the demigod was strong enough to overcome anything. Of course now he was busy wondering if his friend would be all right. Would he be able to defeat this Enforcer? She was the toughest thing Iolaus had come up against in a long time. But Hercules was half god. He'd probably be fine.
"Just keep telling yourself that, Iolaus."
What if he wasn't fine? What if he needed his partner's help? He couldn't stand it anymore. In a burst of fear induced energy, Iolaus pulled himself upright and headed for the door. Even if all he could do was distract that monster for a second, it'd be worthwhile. He was convinced that Hercules needed him. Iolaus could almost hear him calling.
"I'm coming, Herc," he tried to shout but the words came out choked and voiceless.
By the time they neared the barn where they'd left Iolaus, Hercules had Nemesis laughing. She kept insisting that she was fine and could walk for herself. Hercules didn't dispute that. Instead, he told her he liked having her where he could keep an eye on her.
"Hercules! I'm a grown woman. I don't need a baby-sitter!"
The demigod cocked a skeptical eyebrow in response.
"Okay, today wasn't one of my better days. I admit that, but the Enforcer is gone now and I can handle any ordinary danger."
"All right, you win." Hercules set her on her feet with a bit of a flourish.
"Thank you," she smiled at him and turned to continue their journey. It was then that she discovered that they'd already arrived. She turned back to the demigod and swatted him on the shoulder.
"Hey! What was that for?"
"As if you didn't know." With that, she turned and went inside.
Hercules followed, trying not to laugh. He almost bumped into Nemesis when she stopped just inside. "What's wrong?" He asked her.
"Iolaus isn't here." She turned to him, eyes full of concern. "You didn't bring him with you, did you? He was too badly injured for that."
"Of course I didn't but he's even more stubborn than you are. I'd better go find him."
Nemesis bit off the angry retort his comment inspired. All she said was: "I'll help."
Hercules nodded. "The best thing would be if you stayed here. That way, if he comes back on his own, you can keep him here. Tie him down if you have to."
"He won't get away from me," Nemesis assured him. "Now go find him."
With a grateful smile, Hercules headed back outside. "All right my friend, which way did you go?"
He decided to head for the tavern first. That was the last place Iolaus had seen the Enforcer. It made sense that he'd have started looking there. Hercules took the most direct path figuring that Iolaus would have done the same.
It was a good guess. About halfway there, while cutting through a narrow alley, he found Iolaus. The hunter lay face down in the narrow, garbage strewn path. He wasn't moving.
Hercules fell to his knees beside the prone form of his best friend. He gently turned the blond over pulling him into his arms at the same time. Iolaus was pale, but breathing. A quick check failed to reveal any new injuries. Hercules sent a quick prayer of thanks to whomever it was that watched over the foolishly brave. Gathering his friend up, he rose and turned back toward the barn.
"Why do you do these things, my friend?" He wondered aloud.
While she waited, Nemesis had time to think. What she thought about was the future, her future. Now that the threat to Hercules was over, she had to decide what to do with the rest of her mortal life. She considered staying with the demigod and his friend, helping them with their battles. That didn't seem like a good idea. Hercules' protective attitude had bothered her. She was used to taking care of herself. Just because she was mortal now that didn't mean she was helpless like Hercules seemed to think. If she stayed with him she'd ever have a chance to learn to survive as a mortal.
So now what? Nemesis knew she had a lot to learn about being mortal. She needed someplace to do that. After a moment's reflection, she decided to stay right where she was; at least for a while. It was a fair size village. There were plenty of people to meet and learn from but not so many that she'd be easily overwhelmed by them.
There was another advantage. Staying here meant breaking with Hercules before he got in the habit of protecting her. Nemesis was positive he'd have insisted on accompanying her if she wanted to go somewhere else. Once he'd gotten in the habit of protecting her, he'd never treat her as an equal.
"Yes, this really is the best possible choice," she assured herself. "Now all I have to do is tell Hercules, the sooner the better."
Iolaus hung limply in Hercules' arms all the way back. He didn't even stir when the demigod placed him on the bed of hay, nor when Nemesis gently washed away the alley's grime. All of which worried Hercules.
"It doesn't look like he's got any new injuries," Nemesis commented when she finished her task.
"No, but he was obviously hurt a lot worse than he let on before."
"He knew you still had to fight the Enforcer. He just didn't want to worry you."
"I know. I understand that. What I don't understand is why he came after us." Hercules sat on the bed and gathered one of the injured man's small hands into his own.
"Same reason you came after me, I imagine."
Hercules shot her a dirty look. "I wasn't injured and you had no business trying to take her on in the first place."
"Let's save that particular argument for later, shall we? I just meant that he was worried about you."
"I know," Hercules sighed. "Sorry. It's just. he does this sort of thing all the time. I can't decide if he's brave or foolhardy. Probably both."
The demigod sighed again, tightening his grip on Iolaus' limp hand. "One of these days he's going to get himself killed and I won't be able to do anything about it. I don't think I could cope, Nemesis. He's the one who always helps me through grief and loss. How do I survive if he's the one I've lost?"
"You haven't lost him. He's right here and he's going to be fine."
"But for how long? How long until he dies trying to save me? How long before I get my best friend killed?"
He was interrupted by a faint voice. "Herc. stop."
Misunderstanding, Hercules quickly released the hold he'd had on Iolaus' hand and began looking for damage.
"Herc, no. I meant... quit beating... yourself up over the dumb things. I do."
"So," Hercules said with a slight smile. "You admit it was dumb?"
Iolaus ignored that question to ask one of his own. "You all right?"
"Yes, I'm fine. It's all over."
Nemesis moved toward the door. "I'm going to go get some more water. Be good." She shot one last meaningful look at the demigod and departed.
"Oh, shoulda thought of that."
"That's okay. I didn't think of it either. Nemesis lured her into the forge."
The hunter nodded thoughtfully as both men fell silent. Hercules looked down at the hand he still held. He began running his thumb across it like a worry stone. He looked up when Iolaus sighed.
"Let's get it over with."
"The lecture, you know, when you tell me how stupid that was and try to convince me to never do it again."
"Would it make any difference?"
"No," was the quick reply. "But you'd probably feel better."
Hercules chuckled briefly at that. "Maybe, but let's try something different this time. Instead of me telling you why you shouldn't, how about you tell me why you did?"
"I had too."
"Could you elaborate a little?"
"Herc, Hera created that thing to *kill* you. Yeah, I know, it's hardly the first time she's tried but she only has to get it right once."
"And you getting yourself killed helps me how?"
"I didn't plan on dying anymore than you did when you ran after Nemesis. Even if all I managed to do was distract her at a crucial moment. well, it might have made all the difference."
"Maybe, but it wasn't worth the risk."
"To you," Iolaus said softly.
"Yes, to me!" Hercules got to his feet with that and started pacing around the room. "Iolaus, I don't *want* you to die for me. If it's a choice between me and you, hands down, it's you every time!"
The injured man couldn't help smiling. "I feel the same way about you."
"I hate this. I value your help, I really do. I couldn't have done half the things I've done without you. But I don't want to watch you die."
"You want to split up?" Iolaus tried, unsuccessfully, to keep the pain that idea caused out of his voice.
"No!" Hercules' response was reassuringly emphatic. "No, Iolaus. Honestly? I'd probably worry even more if I couldn't keep an eye on you. You have a talent for attracting trouble."
"I don't do it on purpose," the blond protested.
"I know." Hercules quit pacing and settled back on the edge of the bed. "So what do we do?"
"What we always said we would." Iolaus smiled up at his friend. "Back to back."
"Heroes," Hercules finished for him with an answering smile.
Nemesis took the long way to the village well. She wanted to give the two men plenty of time to settle things between them. By the time she'd returned, all was quiet. She hesitated on the threshold, not wanting to interrupt a possibly tense moment. When the silence continued she decided to risk a peek.
Hercules was sitting on the hay bales, back against the wall and legs stretched out in front of him. Iolaus lay beside him, tucked securely under an old blanket. Both men were deeply asleep.
Nemesis smiled wistfully at the picture they made. Their friendship was something she envied. Gods never really had friends. Lovers, enemies, allies and acquaintances, yes but no true friends. Perhaps, now that she was mortal, Nemesis would finally be able to find a friend of her own. It was a heartening thought. She'd finally found an up side to losing her god-hood.
Hercules and Nemesis spent the next few days taking turns watching Iolaus. He kept insisting he was all right and should be allowed up. They argued the point. He accused them of being his jailers. Things pretty much went downhill from there.
Finally, much sooner than Hercules would have preferred, they made plans to be on their way. Having put it off to the last moment, Nemesis pulled Hercules aside and told him of her intention to spend some time on her own. They said their good-byes and she walked away. She could help wondering as she looked back at the departing heroes, if she wasn't making the biggest mistake of her new life.
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